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Batman: The Animated Series – “Christmas With The Joker”

Christmas_With_the_Joker-Title_CardEpisode Number: 2

Original Air Date: November 13, 1992

Directed By: Kent Butterworth

Written By: Eddie Gorodetsky

First Appearance(s):  Robin, Joker, Summer Gleason, Arkham Asylum

An interesting choice for a second episode of a series. It’s a Christmas episode, which feels kind of inline with Batman thanks to Batman Returns. It’s also the debut of The Joker, and introducing him through a Christmas themed episode also feels odd. Naturally, since the show premiered in September this episode was held back to be more topical when it did eventually air, though its original air date still came before Thanksgiving which still feels off.

In this episode, we are immediately introduced to The Joker, who with other inmates at the famed Arkham Asylum, is decorating a Christmas tree and singing “Jingle Bells.” In a moment that would probably now be described as “metta,” Joker adds in the “Batman smells,” variation which probably delighted 8 year old me at the time while he improbably blasts away on a rocket-powered Christmas tree just as he arrives at the “and The Joker got away,” part of the song. Right away, we see this episode isn’t going to care much for realism as Joker is going to quickly establish lots of unique traps and engineer a few kidnappings in a short amount of time with zero explanation on how he accomplished any of that. And unlike many of the villains who will follow, this is not a depiction of Batman’s first encounter with The Joker. It’s pretty clear that the two have a relationship that predates the events of this show and have been at this game for years, assumedly, just as this isn’t Robin’s first foray into crime-fighting even though it’s his first appearance in the show (we’ll get to see his origin later).

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The Joker’s humorous, but improbable, escape from Arkham.

Batman is naturally unnerved by The Joker’s Christmas break-out, while Robin (Loren Lester) thinks even villains prefer to spend the holidays with family. Batman is quick to remind him that The Joker has no family. Naturally, Batman is right and when Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson sit down to watch a television broadcast of It’s A Wonderful Life they soon find the airwaves taken over by The Joker. Joker has kidnapped three pretty important figures in Gotham:  Commissioner Gordon, Detective Bullock, and television news reporter Summer Gleeson (Mari Devon). Joker, lacking a family to spend the holidays with, has dubbed this trio the Awful Lawful Family and given them personalities of Mommy, Daddy, and Baby (Bullock gets to wear the adorable bonnet). They’re hog-tied, and presumably in danger, as are other citizens of Gotham.

christmas-with-the-joker-batman-4673283-512-384

The Joker and his “family.”

Joker lays some traps, including taking out a railroad bridge and arming an observatory with a giant cannon, all while tormenting his captors in a mostly PG sort of way on television. His use of a discontinued toy is what clues Batman in on the fact that The Joker must be housed in an abandoned toy factory and he and Robin race to the rescue. They have a mostly slapstick encounter with The Joker and his toy-themed gadgets, and Robin even gets to make a pretty terrible bat pun when Batman makes use of a baseball bat. The ultimate goal of The Joker’s crime is to get Batman to open a Christmas present from him, and it’s genuinely amusing and makes The Joker look like a psycho, albeit a G-rated one, and I kind of appreciated that fact.

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Merry Christmas, Batman.

“Christmas With The Joker” is a middling episode of this series that’s neither great nor bad. It’s hamstrung somewhat by the Christmas theme and just feels inappropriate as the debut for The Joker. Of course, if I were going in broadcast order it wouldn’t be The Joker’s debut, and those of us watching at the time were introduced to the character in a better fashion. As the debut of The Joker though, it still is a fine reception for Mark Hamill in his second most famous role. His Joker is often regarded as the best voice for the character. It’s mostly goofy and fun, especially in this episode, but when he needs to get a little more malevolent he can slip into a darker tone with ease. And his laugh is brilliant.

BTAS - S1E2 First Appearance - Robin

Not to be forgotten, this episode also marks the first appearance of Robin.

As a Christmas episode, I will give this one props for not being an adaptation of a more popular Christmas story. At first, I was afraid it would go in a It’s A Wonderful Life direction (a non-Christmas episode kind of will much later this season) when Robin name-dropped the film, but it thankfully did not. I do hate how Gordon and Bullock are just assumed kidnapped, and the episode is too eager to “yada yada” over such details. It’s the only episode written by Eddie Gorodetsky, and if he could do better it’s too bad he didn’t get a chance to show it. For a show that does a good job of elevating what children’s entertainment could be, this one feels too close to the cartoons of the 80s which treated its audience as imbeciles. It’s not as bad as those old shows, but definitely lacking when compared to future episodes. I’m probably being a little too hard on it, as even this mostly serious show is entitled to just have fun now and then. It’s still a worthwhile episode to toss into your Christmas viewing experience though.

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Batman: The Movie

Batman:  The Movie (1966)

Batman: The Movie (1966)

The Batman character certainly has changed a lot over the past 50 years. Sure, under the mask he’s still Bruce Wayne, his parents are still dead, and he can usually be found prowling the streets of Gotham City by night accompanied by a juvenile in a red and yellow costume. Many things have changed though. For one, Bruce Wayne is no longer content to be a millionaire so he’s jumped into the billionaire ranks. The blue and gray spandex Batman used to wear is now often black and gray and even armor-plated, depending on the artist. Robin, thankfully, isn’t parading around in tights either or a bright yellow cape (no wonder why he’s usually the one getting picked off as opposed to Batman) and sometimes he even gets to be an adult. Mostly though, the tone of the work has changed. A lot of writers have received credit for turning Batman into a more serious and mature character during the 70’s and 80’s with most of it going to Frank Miller, but the change was actually rather gradual. In order for a character to survive decades upon decades and remain relevant, he has to change with the times as the general tastes of the public are always evolving.

In 1965, Batman was faced with becoming irrelevant. His comic book sales were down and he hadn’t appeared in a film reel in decades. Television was still pretty new, and pretty limited, but the idea to give the caped crusader a shot at television came up and by 1966 Batman was more than relevant once again; he was a star! Starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the dynamic duo, Batman appeared twice a week (a rarity at the time) on television in a serialized nature, often with the first night’s program continuing into the second’s. The show was a hit with children mostly, but also adults who grew up reading the Batman comics. Color TV was new at the time, and Batman was presented in eye-popping color for those fortunate enough to have a color set. The jazz-infused soundtrack was catchy, and the wild cast of villains gave the show a new flavor each week. Stars were born, of course, with classic comic villains such as The Joker and The Penguin seeing their star burn even brighter while villains mostly abandoned by the books, such as Catwoman and The Riddler, found a new lease on life. The show was basically a farce, with Batman and Robin presented in an ever serious manner oblivious to the ridiculous circumstances they would find themselves in week after week. The supporting cast of Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) were equally oblivious while the villains came across as the only ones in on the joke. Batman and Robin would find themselves in dire situations often, but would always get out of it either thru ingenuity, sheer coincidence, or via an oddly situation specific “Bat” gadget. This was Batman in the 60’s and it’s what people wanted.

Look out, caped crusaders! The Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler have joined forces!

Look out, caped crusaders! The Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler have joined forces!

When the show was first conceived, it was decided that a movie would be created to help launch the program. Plans changed, however, when the network involved surprisingly picked up the show with production needing to start immediately to meet a January air date. The movie was back-burnered for awhile in order to focus on the television show, but filming resumed in the early spring to make a summer release possible. This ended up being a boon for the show, and the film as well, as Batman took off and created great anticipation for the film. The increased budget for a feature also meant that new gadgets and vehicles, such as the Batcopter and Batcycle, could be created for the film and then used again for the television show. In order to make the film feel bigger than the show, four villains were present instead of the usual one: Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman. The only complication was Julie Newmar, Catwoman on the show, was unavailable so the part had to be recast and went to Lee Meriwether. Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin were able to play their roles as Joker, Penguin, and Riddler, respectively, and the rest of the television cast was available for the film as well.

The style of the television show was incorporated into the film. The art direction is distinctly pop for the era. There’s an abundance of bright, primary colors. When the characters are put into a more realistic setting, such as Batman during the infamous bomb segment, they stand-out against the background and appear as out of place as a man in a batsuit should (though the extras in the shots carry on as if this is business as usual). The action sequences are surprisingly kept to a minimum, but when a fight breaks out expect many haymakers and somersaults (the editors saved the famous “pow” animations for the film’s climactic battle). The Batman theme is present but in small doses. The film’s main theme is perhaps relied upon a bit too heavily as it’s used for every long shot of Batman and Robin in their various vehicles used throughout the film.

Still the coolest Batmobile ever created.

Still the coolest Batmobile ever created.

The plot from the film is rather rudimentary. The four villains have teamed up to kidnap the world leaders using a bizarre dehydrating ray that reduces any human it touches into a pile of dust to be rehydrated later. The protagonists deduce their foes’ motives thru absurd means presented as deductive reasoning but are either lazy writing or an attempt at humor. Batman is the straight man while Robin is more of a hot-head (and possibly a sociopath who wants to murder alcoholics). The villains are as over-the-top as their TV personalities. Gorshin and Romero present their characters as cackling madmen with The Riddler having the added flaw of feeling compelled to leave Batman and Robin clues in the form of riddles. The film actually draws attention to how similar the two villains became once they hit television, but both actors perform so well in their roles it’s mostly forgiven. Meredith is a delight as The Penguin. He waddles everywhere and gets so much personality out of that long cigarette holder always stuck between his teeth. Meriwether’s Catwoman is basically the same as Newmar’s with her always feeling compelled to use the word “perfect” when describing something she approves of, but drawing it out into a long “purrrrrfect” because she is, after all, a crazy cat-person. Catwoman also gets to have an alter-ego in the form of Miss Kitka, who seduces Bruce Wayne to lure him into a trap so that he may be used as bait for Batman. As a kid, I found it odd how easily Batman is able to see thru a disguise The Penguin uses later in the film, but he’s blind to Catwoman’s. Apparently, even Batman sometimes ends up thinking with the wrong head from time to time.

The special effects in the film will impress no one accustomed to the movies of today. When Batman is attacked by a shark early in the film it’s clearly made of rubber and its teeth leave no imprint on Batman or draw blood. A scene of some ducks in the water are obviously decoys, and every character who throws a punch whiffs by about six inches on their target. And who could forget the climbing scenes? Scene thru the lens of today, these shortcomings just add to the campy charm. The comical bomb Batman is forced to dispose of is cheeky and the ray-gun effects are delightfully cliche.

Some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb (I had to do it!).

Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb (I had to do it!).

The film is a farce, an exercise in the absurd, and it is entertaining. I grew up watching the television show in syndication during the 80’s. I suspect my generation may be the last who can say that as I assume most kids today have never seen Adam West as Batman and I wonder if they would appreciate it. Perhaps if this is the fist Batman they’re exposed to they’ll see what the kids of the 60’s saw, or maybe they’ll just see a very ordinary looking man in gray and blue spandex. Batman was fun for me as a kid with all of the different villains and bat-gadgets and as an adult I find it funny and charming. It’s not really clever comedy, but I wouldn’t call it stupid either. The Batman premise is one that’s far-fetched and unrealistic, and the writers approach the character as such. While writers and filmmakers today are more interested in a realistic portrayal of a masked vigilante, it’s kind of fun to see the character portrayed in the only manner he could actually exist. The entire 1960’s television series is finally set for release this holiday season in a massive, and expensive, box set. That might be overload but for anyone seeking out just a taste of the Batman from 1966, the movie represents a good, and cheap, snap-shot. The blu ray from which this review is for, looks great considering the film’s age. The colors pop as they should, the picture is sharp, and there’s quite a bit of extra content. The film doesn’t look as old as it really is, which is often the best compliment one can give to such an old movie. This was my first Batman on television and I would go on to enjoy Tim Burton’s take on the character and fall in love with The Animated Series. I never lost my affection for this Batman though, and even though I view it in a different way than I did as a five year old, I am still charmed by it. Hopefully, I’m not the only one.


Beware the Batman: “Hunted”

bewarethebatmantitlescreenIt’s hard to imagine a world where Batman isn’t a pop culture force to reckoned with.  He’s arguably the most popular comic book originated character today and easily has had more success than any other comic character in transitioning from one medium to another.  His popularity is not absent of peaks and valleys.  Batman is currently coming off one such peak following the conclusion of his most successful endeavor yet, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and DC Comics is looking to keep the fire going with a new animated series:  Beware the Batman.

Batman is, first and foremost, a comic book superhero.  His overall popularity though, is tied more to his forays outside comics.  Batman’s television and film works have a chance at reaching the comic book audience and non alike.  His first exposure of merit was the television show in the 1960’s.  It’s easy to dismiss the campy program today as being inauthentic, but the Batman of the comics at that time wasn’t far removed from Adam West’s portrayal.  It wasn’t until the 70’s that Batman would rediscover his edge, completing the transformation in the 80’s which helped influence his next cultural milestone, Tim Burton’s Batman.  Batman:  The Animated Series would follow, and despite it being a cartoon aimed at younger audiences, it too managed to attract a wide audience and even spawned the theatrically released Batman:  Mask of the Phantasm.  Of course, a cartoon is unlikely to reach the same audience as a film and that has held mostly true, but the cartoons to follow have been even more obvious in their target audience, so much so as to alienate the comic book fans.

Beware the Batman, in response to series such as The Batman and The Brave and the Bold, feels like an attempt to keep comic fans and attract more than just the Saturday morning crowd.  Time will tell if it can duplicate the success of TAS, but it’s nice to see DC give it a shot.  With no clear plans for where Batman is headed on the big screen, it makes sense to try to build a bridge between the two.  The only complication is where do the creators of Beware the Batman take the series that TAS didn’t?  Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, the masterminds behind TAS, piggy-backed off of Burton to establish the look of Gotham, and then created a tone to suit the show.  Visually, it was unique and thematically it was too when compared with its peers.  The show was not afraid to make broad use of Batman’s rogue’s gallery and took chances on lesser villains Killer Croc and Scarface, while also not being afraid to introduce villains like Roland Dagget and Ruper Thorne, gangsters with no sexy gimmick to speak of.  Beware the Batman has been developed by Glen Murakami, a veteran of TAS spin-off Batman Beyond, and is being produced in tandem with Mitch Watson.  Greg Weisman is on board as a writer and he’s done extensive work with other comics and comic TV shows but is probably best known as the creator for Disney’s Gargoyles.

Anarky is expected to play a large role in Beware the Batman.

Anarky is expected to play a large role in Beware the Batman.

The talent appears to be in place to make BTB a success, and the show’s creators have come up with a vision for the program to help differentiate it from its predecessors.  For starters, the show is animated entirely in CG in a style similar to the Green Lantern series already airing.  In terms of color palette, it actually looks similar to TAS as there’s a lot of black and gray.  Batman, himself, is sporting a black and gray costume similar to the one he wore in the final season of TAS (often referred to as The New Animated Series) but with a more triangular head.  Alfred is said to have a larger role in this program, with his past exploits as a secret agent being a central part of the show’s plot.  Batman also has a new sidekick, Katana, a character first conceived in the 80’s who just this year received her own limited series.  Her design is unique to the show and seems to be, in part, due to wanting her to resemble Batman to some degree.  No word on how her presence will affect Robin.  The show’s brain-trust made the decision to avoid The Joker early on, and as a result, Batman’s primary antagonist appears to be Anarky.  Anarky is another 80’s character and in tone he’s similar to Allen Moore’s V from V for Vendetta, though Anarky has been forced to change to mirror whatever the current political climate of the world is.  There’s been little said on how he’ll be portrayed in the show, but it’s definitely a bold choice for what is a “kid’s show.”  If the character appears dumbed-down for television it will likely disappoint the comic book fans who tune in and could turn them off.

Beware the Batman seems to have a solid groundwork to start.  In addition to Anarky, the creators want to continue to use villains not previously seen on television to help further differentiate the show from the ones that came before.  This direction should be commended, as it’s certainly the bravest route, though I do expect some of Batman’s more popular villains will eventually show up if the program is allowed to continue for multiple seasons.  In order for that to happen though, season one needs to be a success.

Batman's look comes across as a mix of old and new.

Batman’s look comes across as a mix of old and new.

The first episode aired today and is titled “Hunted.”  As is the case with most series premieres, the episode is concerned with introducing the main cast of the show to viewers while also giving us a taste for the action and spectacles we can expect going forward. Right off the bat (no pun intended), we’re shown Batman taking down some small-time thugs.  Disappointingly, the firearms used by the enemies look like toy squirt guns and fire lasers.  Beware the Batman is not the first cartoon to eschew realistic firearms, but it looks especially ridiculous here given the otherwise realistic look of the setting (the guns initially were going to look realistic following in the footsteps of TAS, but after the Aurora shooting the show was changed).  Realism does seem like it may be in short supply with this show.  While no one would expect a Batman show to possess a high degree of realism, it does seem like this one will at least be less so than TAS.  The villains in this first episode are Professor Pyg and Mr. Toad.  Professor Pyg is just a fellow with a pig mask, while Mr. Toad is some kind of mutant toad man (that looks more like a frog) with a super-sonic breath attack of some kind.  Professor Pyg arms himself with a saw that can apparently cut through anything except Batman’s gauntlets, and Mr. Toad likes wielding bombs that look like they were taken straight from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

I’ll never prefer CG animation to traditional hand drawn animation, but the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon did leave me pleasantly surprised with how it turned out.  That show is not without faults, and those same faults are shared by BTB plus a few more.  It must consume too many resources to create an authentic looking city, because the streets of Gotham are empty aside from the main characters of a scene.  This means during the debut episode’s car chase sequence, the only cars on the road appear to be Batman, his enemy, and the enemy’s target.  The characters also do not animate as well as those on TMNT as they seem stiff.  When Batman runs, his body doesn’t look in sync with itself and he resembles a wind-up toy that’s supposed to mimic running.

Professor Pyg and Mr. Toad add a dash of comic relief while still retaining an element of danger.

Professor Pyg and Mr. Toad add a dash of comic relief while still retaining an element of danger.

Design wise, I already mentioned Batman.  The Batmobile is present in this debut episode and it resembles a Lamborghini and apparently it’s dual flame spouts on the back are meant to distinguish it from its predecessors.  Alfred is a mountain of a man who towers over Bruce Wayne.  His role as a bodyguard is emphasized in this episode with part of the plot revolving around his wanting to protect both Bruce Wayne and Batman, with Batman preferring he only concern himself with Bruce Wayne.  The individual who will become Katana is also shown.  Her design of a small asian woman is unremarkable, though she’s seen driving a red and yellow motorcycle which had me wondering if that was a Robin reference.

The voice work seemed more than capable, though getting used to the new Batman (Anthony Ruivivar) and Alfred (J.B. Blanc) will take some getting used to.  Professor Pyg (Brian George) was the stand-out from a voice acting perspective, his tone adding a layer of menace to an already unsettling looking character.  Simon Stagg was present, and I wonder what role he’ll play going forward.  The previously mentioned Anarky is not seen so apparently they’re holding off on his debut for a later episode.

The plot for this first episode revolves around Pyg and Toad kidnapping billionaires who are not eco-friendly.  Batman has to use some of his detective skills to determine who their targets are before the villains strike next.  There’s also the previously mentioned Alfred conflict, with him also wanting to find his own successor for when he can no longer protect Bruce/Batman.  Batman is shown to be somewhat sloppy, though we’re given no indication of how long he’s been at this whole crime-fighting vigilante business.  The creators of the show in all of the pre-release press boasted about how this show was going to show off Batman’s detective skills, but this episode mostly followed the same formula as TAS with Batman turning to his trusty super-computer to do most of the work for him.  Since much of the plot of this first episode is devoted to setting the series up for future episodes, there’s very little resolution to the Batman conflict with Professor Pyg and Mr. Toad.  We’re also only given a snippet of what drives the villains with hopefully more to come.

Expect Katana's full debut to occur in the coming episodes.

Expect Katana’s full debut to occur in the coming episodes.

Overall, I appreciate the direction the show’s creators are pushing it in, but I’m less in favor of the execution.  Pyg and Toad have potential as villains, though I would have preferred something more grounded for Mr. Toad.  The animation is what it is and unfortunately this is the most cost-effective way to do most shows these days.  I’ll reserve final judgement on the show until more episodes have aired though this debut was more of a C effort.  It’s probably unfair of me to compare this to The Animated Series, but if it can’t approach that level of quality, then what’s the point of it existing?  Hopefully the show is able to carve out its own niche that can be enjoyed by Batman fans of all ages.